ELGL will host a conversation with Barbara Roberts on July 12.
More than two decades after her election to Oregon’s highest office, Barbara Roberts is still busy working on regional planning at Metro and hitting the high points of her “bucket list”
BY JANIE NAFSINGER
Pamplin Media Group, Feb 15, 2012
It’s a Sunday afternoon with Barbara Roberts at one of her neighborhood hangouts, the Adobe Rose restaurant in Southeast Portland’s Sellwood-Moreland area. The former Oregon governor has just finished reading excerpts from her recently published autobiography, and she’s now taking questions from the audience.
One man pipes up: “I still want you to run for president,” he tells Roberts, drawing laughs from her and the rest of the crowd.
“Too old and too tired,” she replies, beaming.
Roberts is on her turf, in her neighborhood. But in a way, you could say the same about the entire state. Everywhere she goes, from Northwest Portland to Forest Grove, people recognize Roberts, a fourth-generation Oregonian who served from 1991 to 1995 as the state’s first, and so far only, female governor. Even better, she finds most people she meets to be friendly and welcoming.
“I just get wonderful response,” she says later over dinner at the Adobe Rose.
Roberts was in Grants Pass recently giving another book reading and a speech on women’s suffrage, “and I can’t tell you how supportive the community is there,” she says.
Another former governor, Victor Atiyeh, has a great explanation of the relationship between Oregon’s citizens and their chief executive, Roberts says: “ ‘Once you’ve been governor, the people own you forever,’ and Vic is absolutely right. There’s a sense of ownership that Oregonians have about their governors.”
It doesn’t matter which party you belong to, says Roberts, a Democrat. “Most Republicans in Oregon are very courteous to me, and Vic (a Republican) says the same about Democrats.”
To her, Oregon doesn’t seem to have the level of political divisiveness found in so many other parts of the country. “I think Oregon is not like the national political framework. I hope not.”
Her political life
Now 75, Roberts has held most elected offices that exist around here, from school board member (in the Parkrose district) to state legislator to secretary of state to governor. She’s now halfway through a two-year appointment to the Metro Council.
She hadn’t thought about serving with Metro until other councilors asked her to apply for a vacancy because there didn’t appear to be a majority vote for any of the other candidates, she says. “I was also interested in Metro’s issues — transportation, land use, recycling,” she adds.
It’s sort of the way Roberts entered politics in the first place. It had never occurred to her to run for office until, as the young mother of a boy with autism, she began fighting for her son’s right to a public education in the early 1970s.
She recalls her first trip to the state capitol in Salem to advocate for the rights of children with disabilities, “and I learned the political process was not closed,” she says. “That’s how I learned I could make a difference in the political process. It was an incredible awakening for me.”
One public office Roberts has never sought or held is that of Portland city commissioner – in the past she lived in an unincorporated area of the city – and she’s not going to, because she’s done running for office. She will, however, continue to support Democratic candidates, doing fundraising, mentoring and encouraging people to run for office. She has endorsed Katie Riley in the Democratic primary for House District 29, which covers Forest Grove and Hillsboro, and endorsed Suzanne Bonamici during her successful bid to represent Oregon’s 1st Congressional District. In that way, she says, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be done with politics.”
And though Roberts won’t seek another term on the Metro Council, she’s making friends during her short-term appointment.
“Working with governor Roberts, now Metro councilor Roberts is a real kick,” said Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington, who represents Forest Grove and most of Washington County at Metro. “She is just a really fun person, no matter what context you’re in, in a meeting, outside a meeting.”
And having Roberts on the council is helping the agency’s policy initiatives as well, Harrington said.
“She uses her long history in local and state government to provide input and help shape work that’s focused on advancing our community,” Harrington said. “She will draw from her past as a way to illustrate how we need to keep reaching and going toward that better future.”
It took Roberts 5 1/2 years to write her autobiography, “Up the Capitol Steps: A Woman’s March to the Governorship.”
“I set out to make sure the history didn’t get lost,” she says, explaining her intent to tell her part of the story of the nation’s first women governors.
She also wanted “to show people there’s more to a political leader than a political life,” she says. “In each politician there’s also a mother, a child, a parent. I’m a mom, a daughter, a grandmother, a wife. For me, that was important for people to understand, but you can’t relate your life without pain or a sense of loss.”
Loss for Roberts included the deaths of her only sister and her only niece; her divorce from her first husband; and the 1993 death of her second husband, Frank Roberts, who served in both the Oregon House and Senate.
Frank Roberts grew up in Forest Grove and attended Pacific University, where Barbara Roberts and her son Mark still volunteer.
Writing her autobiography proved painful indeed. “I found myself back there, reliving those stories to tell them realistically. I had to relive them. I think that’s the only way you can tell your story,” she says.
Her ‘bucket list’
Roberts has always had loads of energy, “even when I was a kid,” she says. “I’m easily inspired to do things, and I’m lucky to have so many good friends.”
So, what’s left that she really wants to do? “I’ve started a bucket list,” she says. So far there are three items on it – she’ll think of more to add later – and the first two are already in the works.
Item 1: Ride a hot-air balloon. Some friends apparently were paying attention to this wish because they gave her an Oregon hot-air balloon ride for her 75th birthday in December. (She hasn’t taken that ride yet but will soon.)
Item 2: Attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico. Again, friends were listening: She also received a gift of airfare and hotel accommodations to the festival, which is held in the fall.
Item 3: A year from now, when her appointment to the Metro Council is done with and her book tour has wound down, Roberts plans to finish her college degree. She never did; when she was secretary of state she worked on a degree in communications at Marylhurst University but set it aside when she ran for governor. She likely will return to Marylhurst, where she has about a year’s worth of credits left to earn on that degree.
“They offered me an honorary degree, but I said no, I want to earn this one,” she says.
Does her life ever slow down? She laughs. “I don’t think so,” she says. During the Metro Council’s two-week break in late December, “I couldn’t remember the last time I had two weeks off. I loved it. I could get used to retirement. I tell people I’d fail miserably at retirement, but I tasted it, and it felt really good.”
One of her joys is watching the Portland Trail Blazers. She’s a huge longtime fan of the local basketball team, “even when nobody liked them,” she says. A big thrill as governor was flying first class to Japan, “and the only other passengers were the Blazers,” she says (they were on their way to play two exhibition games against the Los Angeles Clippers). “My mother (another big Blazer fan) would’ve killed to get my seat.”
The only significant absences from her life right now, she says, are her grandson, who’s in the Navy in Japan, and her granddaughter, who is in the Army in Virginia.
“Life is good for me,” she says. “Sometimes, because I’m by myself, I feel a little lonely. But I feel so lucky to live in a state like Oregon, living in Portland and Sellwood, and both of my sons live in the area … Most of the things I care about are right here where I can see them.”